The Discipline of Study -- J. H. Osborne

I have a very proper analogy that I would like to use concerning Pastor J. H. Osborne of First Bible Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. That analogy has to do with the prowess and strength that an NFL linebacker has. I was hit with an incredible force, speed, and intensity and I went down in a heap, and it was a blind-sided hit at that.

Several years ago (2003-04), I was invited to the “Fall Classic” that is hosted by Brother Jerry Dean in Bossier City, Louisiana in a smaller group setting. There are about 40-50 men that he invites for this meeting in October and he will ask men from around the nation to preach and teach on a two-night and one full day affair. When I was invited, I was told that Brother Osborne would be one of the main speakers to which I then asked, “Who is Brother Osborne?” and the very subtle answer came back, “He pastors in Indianapolis.” That was the understatement of the year!

Brother Osborne has to be one of the most masterful and engaging preachers that I have ever heard. Furthermore there is an amazing story behind him. He really never saw himself in the role as a pastor or a preacher. He told me that if you would have placed an ad in the paper asking for the most unqualified person to pastor a church it would have been him. Thirty-nine years ago, he began pastoring First Bible Church. His pastor, James Petty, died quite unexpectedly on a Wednesday night, and Brother Osborne was elected pastor on Sunday. He had never preached! He had taught a few Sunday School lessons, led the service, and occasionally led singing but no training at all. In fact, he did not even have a key to the church.

Brother Osborne said he really did not know what to do and despite the fact of having grown up in this church it had never been his desire to preach much less be the pastor. In fact, he shied away from it and attended Purdue University majoring in electronics for a while before being voted in as the pastor.

He said that his ministry in the early days was a lot of trial and error. During those days, Bible schools were discouraged by many pastors because they said that it only turned out “cookie cutter” preachers who were all the same. He had not participated in any weddings or funerals. In fact, he had no mentors at all. In his early days, older preachers were not much on mentoring or on sharing anything. They were “sermon graveyards” in that they would not give anything out. Their sermons and Bible studies died with them after having been preached only to their local church.

After he felt the call and the responsibility of pastoring the church it placed him in a do or die mode. He watched, imitated, learned, and did everything possible to learn the ropes of pastoral ministry and preaching. If he saw something that another man was doing well, he would imitate it and if he saw something that was bad he would move away from it.

He soon discovered one premise about preaching from Romans 15:4. “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” Everything written in the Bible is for our learning so that we may provide hope to those who are hearing us. The Bible is prophecy, poetry, revelation, parables, songs, and ultimately a book of hope. He always asks himself when he is studying, “Where is the hope in this?”

The primary goal of preaching is to provide the hope of salvation to those who are hearing the preaching. The man by the pool for 38 years had very little hope. Prior to Lazarus being resurrected there was very little hope. But the diligent student will pull the hope from the passage and present it.

Sermons can be studied out and they can be preached out of the mind of the preacher but the truly good ones that will have an impact are those that are “born” in the midst of life’s pressing experiences. As a pastor, he will see certain needs in the church and he will need to address those. Whether they are issues of prayer, holiness, and even tithing, a shepherd will seek out messages that will be “born” in his heart so that he may impact the hearer.

Brother Osborne told me that he enjoys working with words. There are many repetitive words that are in the Psalms as compared to Isaiah. Isaiah was a much more educated man than David was and so therefore the words in Isaiah will be more varied than what one finds in the Psalms of David. However, the repetition of the words can make for some very powerful messages.

Brother Osborne also told me that he seeks out the situations behind the stories. He mentioned a message he had preached sometime ago, “False Gods and Old Nurses.” It was about Jacob weeping for the nurse but oddly he did not weep at the death of Rachel. This is a passage of Scripture that shows some very odd things and it is looking at a circumstance that seems to leap out of nowhere that will give rise to some very good messages. An anointed imagination is very important to have although one must be careful not to violate the integrity of the Scriptures.

Characters will play out the human drama. In every story that we read in the Bible there are stars, co-stars, walk-ons, those in the crowd, and even those who appear to be the wallflowers have something to contribute to the message. Find the people who do not necessarily do the fantastic because all characters in the Bible have a story that needs, in fact must be told. To do this, one has to get off the beaten path and find these sorts of people. An often over-looked character is Hannah’s husband. What about him? “A man named Elkanah” is worth a preacher’s time. We have often heard Hannah, Samuel, Eli, and Eli’s sons preached about, but have you ever heard a message about Elkanah?

In Hebrews 11, “and others” gives us an indication that the Bible is full of “others” who were important to the work of God. They will come kicking and screaming from the pages of the Scripture but they must need to do this for effective preaching to take place. Jonah takes the reader on a trip that is worth a man digging into. However, this kind of study is very hard work and far too many will not give themselves to working it out.

It is important to read the Bible but to study the Bible is going to require the discipline of “little by little.” The Bible ought to be new every time that we read it. It is not so much that the actual words are new but we have to approach the Bible through a sense of having been changed by our experiences since the last time we read it. If you continue to go back to the well of Scripture it will speak much to your life.

Three elements that will help our preaching are tests, trials, and experiences. All three of these categories are separate entities and they will heighten our own experience with God and His Word. Notice John, the closest disciple of Jesus. He heard the heartbeat of God. He heard the blood before he ever saw the blood that was spilled at Calvary. He knew what the hands and feet of Jesus looked like before they were pierced. But it would not be until he reached Patmos that revelation would come to him. Revelation can only come to a man who is in a place of isolation and persecution. Much revelatory preaching can only come to us through the birth of painful experiences. Tribulation, patience, experience, and then the bursting evidence of hope.

Experience is the crucible of life or it can be otherwise called the Patmos Experience. Before God can use a man greatly, He will hurt him deeply! Make experiences and the pain of life work for your preaching. A young man can preach a message and it will be neither good nor bad but an older man can take that same sermon and it will be monumental simply because of the fact of experience and suffering has rendered it effective. Experience makes a difference in the life of the preacher. He told me that every young preacher should to go a morgue and see a body that has a tag on the toe. Young preachers ought to spend time with the terminally ill because all of the extraneous is cut out of their conversation and only what is vital is spoken of.

However a preacher must be very careful that he is not always preaching out of his own experiences because it can taint a church. If he is dealing with the illness of a family member, church problems, or the challenges of putting a marriage back together, he must be careful not to get mired in the trap of preaching as therapeutic. If a preacher is not very, very careful he can allow the experiences of life to force him to preach out of his frustrations. When this occurs, the preacher must get on a new track. Often this can occur if he will change the routine, go to a conference that may give some inspiration, or seek a deeper aspect in his own prayer life.

Brother Osborne told me that he is shocked that he has arrived on the conference circuit because he does not see himself as any better than any other pastor. The whole focus of his preaching has always been more to help his local church than anywhere else and the messages that are heard at conferences and meetings across the country are things that his church has already heard him preach. What a powerful testimony! If a pastor will give himself to the excellence of ministry there will be a time that it will bear fruit.

His closest friend is Pastor Spencer McCool who pastors in Michigan. Brother Osborne has preached several times for him for marriage retreats. They talk frequently and many of their conversations are concerning sermons they are preaching and Bible studies that they are working on in their churches.

When I asked Brother Osborne about books, he again reiterated how totally unprepared and unequipped he was concerning pastoral ministry when he started. He had no friends who could help him and point him in a direction toward books. He frankly had very little idea that there were books of sermons, commentaries, and other books that were available to ministers. So his primary source was the Bible. He did mentioned the old, old (as in 1940’s and 1950’s) condensed Reader’s Digest books that contained shorter stories that could be read through fairly quickly for a source of illustrations and sometimes even a catchy sermon title. A good place to find the books is the Goodwill stores that usually place a price of a quarter on them. You will find obscure cases and people mentioned that will not be things that people run across every day. He was flipping through one of them as we were talking and he mentioned something that might be worked out, “Ten Marks of an Educated Man.” This is the way that a preacher can develop a reservoir of material.

As for his sermons, he has every sermon he has ever preached. Before the computer days, it was a typewriter that the sermons were born on. At the present, he has 22 (8.5X11) binders on bookshelves but he also has a closet full of binders because of shelf limitations. Thirty-nine years of preaching all at his fingertips. The majority of the sermons are alphabetized by title. He has three other categories that he places other sermons in. He has divided his funeral messages, men’s ministry sermons, and sermons that he could preach in other local churches should the invitation be given.

He told me that titles are very important to him and he can remember much of the sermons not so much by their Scripture reference but according to the title. The majority of the notes are laid out in a fairly detailed way in outline form but with a lot of bulleted lists. A few of the messages that he considers “heavy” are word-for-word manuscripts. He said that the test of every set of sermon notes is whether or not those notes can be passed along to another preacher and he can preach them without having to ask the author, ‘what did you mean by this’? Good notes also can serve as a fence to keep a preacher from wandering off into Neverland. Furthermore the making up of a good set of notes can help a man to preach better because it forces him to crystallize his thoughts.

Brother Osborne works with a single legal pad which he spends writing down his thoughts on a daily basis. He never tears a page out of it but goes through looking at the collection and milks them for things to work into messages (Brother Jeff Arnold also does this same thing although not with a specific legal pad but varied notebooks, etc.) As Brother Osborne goes back through the notes he gleans things from them. When it is full, he tosses it in the garbage.

He told me some of the things that is written on the current legal pad he is working with:

-A series of words -- Paupers, beggars, poor, and weary.

-Old Foes with New Faces
-- He does not know where this came from. The picture is of Herod who was a descendant of Jacob. The Edomites. The Amalekites.

-Ego -- A Latin word meaning, “I.” Ego is often an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

-Don’t Believe Everything You Think
-- A sermon about overcoming the power of stray thoughts.

Brother Osborne told me that preaching has always been hard work for him. It did not come easy years ago and it does not come easy now. He noted the importance of writing something down every single day and this helps with the challenge of having that reservoir. He also mentioned that it is somewhat hard to just sit down with the purpose of putting a sermon together although he will do this at times. He has noticed over the years that studying at night is the best outlet for him.

I asked about any lengthy series that he has done in his church. He did a long series on the pearl and how that the gates of heaven are of pearl. Pearls as associated with irritations and suffering and he used the aspects of the oyster forming a pearl for this series. He has also done a series on Holiness, Strong Men, and The Cedar Tree. The cedar is rooted in the earth (terrestrial) and its branches reach up toward the sky (celestial).

When I asked him about any sermons that he had preached that stood out to him over the years, he mentioned, “Marry all the King’s Wives,” “The Silence of a Man” which has been preached at a number of men’s conferences, “The Keeper of the Cellar,” and “The Perils of a Servant.” He is currently working on a book that will have his sermon notes. I feel certain that there will be a market for his work!

As for sharing and/or borrowing other preacher’s messages, he told me that there is a great blessing and value in giving other men your notes. The fact of the matter is that most messages never are preached again and they die with that man and the church where he preaches. Even if the notes are preached verbatim they come through a different voice and will have that man’s experiences bolstering the message. Take the notes and use them but make them your message that comes through your voice.

On a closing note, I will share some of the messages that Brother Osborne has preached that have stood out to me:

“To the Priest Goes the Skin”
“Until the Sun Be Hot”
“When It’s Time to Pay the Dancer”
“Marry All the King’s Wives”
“Wanted: Sons of Issachar”
“The Power of a Bloodline”
“The Perils of a Servant”

In addition, I also have the 2003 and 2004 handwritten notes that I took at Brother Dean’s “Fall Classic” that I will try to transcribe and post sometime before the summer. There are probably 15 pages over the two years. On a sidebar, I would encourage preachers to take notes when you are listening to someone preach as it will focus your attention and you never know what you may glean to turn into a message.

God Bless and thanks for reading. . . .

Philip Harrelson

The Other Links with this series:

The Discipline of Study
Jeff Arnold
Scott Graham
Ben Weeks
Jason Calhoun
Doug White


scott baham said…
excellent bro. harrelson . thankyou for this series of blogs.
it has been a real blessing and very informative help to direct me and encourage me to dig deeper and do more studying as also the blogs on expository preaching.

you are providing a very much needed service.

God Bless...........

bro. baham
These studies on the "Disciplines of Study" are incredible. It's akin to finding out "what you don't know."

It may sound humorous, but it's true. What these men have found are exactly the things I didn't know.

I appreciate the work Brother Harrelson has put in to get these interviews and to write these things out. They are resources in themselves.

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